A couple weeks ago, on a Sunday, I got out to the beeyard here in St. Paul, I needed to check the hives. In November of 2016, during the just-before-winter-hive-check, we had two fairly strong hives – they were strong enough and had produced enough honey that we were comfortable harvesting honey from these hives. We left an ample amount for the bees to use throughout the winter. The other two hives, however, were not in great condition. The bees never moved up and beyond the first honey super, and in one of the hives, they had not even filled out that first super completely. The top deep on each of these two hives was also empty. After we pulled honey supers from the two strong hives, we wrapped the hives in tar paper, like we have done for many-a-winter-seasons. In addition to the winter tar papering, we have been using insulation boxes with a piece of Homasote board on the bottom of each insulation box, this, in theory, helps absorb excess moisture from the bees.
When I walked into the beeyard, two weeks ago, I had the feeling that things might not be good. It had been warmer than the usual the last week, and yet, there were no signs of worker bees cleaning the hives out. Instead, in front of one of the weak-hives was a pile of Homasote chips. I knew what that meant – mice.
As soon as I took off the outer cover, the smell of urea hit my nose. Mice. As I began to tear down the hive, I noticed a small rodent nose poke out of the hive entrance. It darted back into the confines of the fine – I assume this nose was attached the rest of a whole mouse. Bending over to get a closer look, it was apparent that metal hive entrances are the way to go – the mice just chewed on the wooden entrance until it was large enough to just saunter into the place.
With the insulation box, honey super, and top brood box off, I was down to the last brood box and bottom board. This remaining brood box was less frame-and-comb, and more shreds and pieces of Homasote board – soaked in mouse urine with feces mixed in for good measure. A rapid series of taps on the remaining brood box, and a deer mouse came shooting up from between two loosely clogged frames. I wondered aloud, if there were more in there?
I lifted off the brood box, and with a shower of daylight, twenty or so mice explode out from the hive, darting this way and that way, over my feet, and across my pant legs.
On to the next hive, I guess.
One other hive had signs of mouse damage in it, but only between two frames. The bees in that hive, one of the strong hives going into winter, seemed to have gotten above their nearest pocket of honey in a super, and, likely, were caught off guard when the temperatures swung lower. A similar situation was uncovered in the other strong hive. A frozen cluster of bees was at the top of the hive – just until the Homasote board. Plenty of honey remained elsewhere in the hive.
The last hive, one of the poor hives going into winter, had no honey remaining. What little honey had been produced by the bees, had been all consumed.
This unfortunate happening with all the hives being devoid of bees can be spun into a positive of sorts, I guess. We have been wanting to get the hives moved for a little while, and this presents itself as an opportunity to more easily deal with that desire. I spent the rest of the day removing the hive boxes and generally cleaning up the fenced in area. I also removed the pallets that the hives had been resting on for the last few years – the pallets were getting a bit soft.
The hope is, once the ground thaws, put four concrete pillars into the ground – similar to the base of my previous chicken coop, and build a nice, solid platform for the hives to reside on; make it easier to work around the hives and not be confined by the old chainlink enclosure.
A week ago, a couple friends tagged along with me to Racine, MN, where we have just two hives remaining. We have had hives in Racine for a number of years, and surprisingly, we have on hive that has had bees – through three winters.
The sun was out when we arrived at the farm. Each of us put on a beesuit, and we walked the short distance from the car to the hives. I rapidly tap a bit on the first hive, the hive that had made it through three previous winters. I could hear anything. Neither could my two friends. We had the smoker going, just in case the bees were actually there.
The tar paper on these two hives was in shreds. The wind must have been fierce earlier in the winter.
With the first set of ratchet straps removed, I lifted off the outer cover and insulation box. The thing that hit me first was the smell. A live hive has a distinct smell, and this hive had it. I lifted off the top honey box, and bees began to make their way up. A peek under the next honey box showed a teaming colony of bees hard at work, in the hive, on a nice sunny day. The honey boxes also had ample weight left in them, evenly distributed, there was no need to supplement with winter pollen patties (which was great, because I had forgotten them back in St. Paul).
My friend, also named Alex, who was also a beekeeper in Vermont a few years ago, got to work at unclogging the entrance of dead bees. I started to unstrap the the remaining hive. Our friend, JP, watched and asked us questions.
The second hive turned out to be even more active than the first. Removing the insulation box, showed the bees were busy moving about on the south-facing side of the hive. A quick check on the weight of the two honey boxes showed an ample amount of mostly well distributed honey. Alex worked to unclog the entrance this hive after he finished up the other hive’s entrance.
With that, we made sure each hive was reassembled with no gaps to let out warmth, or let mice in. The entrance guards were back in place, and the ratchet straps snug. We headed back to Minneapolis and St. Paul.
It had been too long since I last checked the hives in Racine, MN. I had intended to check them when we were down to butcher chickens, a few weeks ago in August. But, I forgot the varroa mite treatment in St. Paul. Besides, the butchering, albeit much faster than prior butcherings, took a chunk of the day. I did not want to consume more time, post-butchering, to check hives — and run the chance that I’d get stung and have a reaction; we had chickens to quarter and get into the freezer!
The drive, like the many, many times we have driven before, was uneventful. Hastings, Cannon Falls, Zumbrota, Pine Island, Oronoco – the river-towns of southeastern Minnesota – their signs clip by as we head south. It was somewhat early, and there was very light traffic. When I notice the speed limit had dropped to 60 miles per hour, I know that we are at Rochester. Past the Apache Mall; when the South Broadway Avenue exit sign can be seen, it’s time to change lanes to the right and take the exit. The Rochester International Airport, followed by Stewartville. The speed limit drops to 30 miles per hour within Stewartville, and picks up again upon exiting south of the city. I always chuckle to myself as we exit Stewartville, there is a 30 mile per hour marker, and less than 75 feet past it, there is a 55 mile per hour marker. I find the nearness of the two signs to be funny, I don’t know why. A few minutes down highway 63, Racine can be found.
Melissa commented, as we were entering the turn lane for Main Street, that her friend in Racine, said the fatal accident the day before resulted the intersection being closed for much of the morning. The heavy rain during the night had erased many of the signs of the accident from the road. Tire marks and a bit of spray paint on the pavement could be seen but even with the temporal proximity to the accident being just the previous day, the intersection felt normal. This was the second fatal accident at this intersection, this year. A left turn onto Main Street; a left a few avenues down and then a right into the driveway of the farm. Wingnut, one of the farm dogs, greets us. Her face is covered in mud, but she’s happy to see us. Mel and Buster, the two house bassets, soon can be heard barking at us through the kitchen door.
It rained off and on, on the drive down to the farm. As we pulled into the farm, it was now on, again; it was raining. Might as well take care of the business I needed to take care. Melissa grabbed her things from the car; she needed to say hello to her horse, Victor, and then walk puppies from the kennel. The puppies are not so puppy-ish anymore; they’re closer to being just very rubbery full sized creatures.
The other business to attended to was to return nuc boxes from the bees purchased in June from Cresco, Iowa. I could keep the nucs for $20 each, or return them. It’s only a 45 minute drive from Racine to Cresco, and it’s the edge of the driftless area of Minnesota and Iowa – the scenery is pleasant with rolling hills, rivers and creeks.
If your mental image of farm country is that of neatly divided squares of 160 acre pieces of land with road on all four side, this is not that. The roads are more a series of swooping curves and short straight-aways than a grid-like system. The drive is a familiar path – this is the fourth trip to Linda and Manley’s, twice to pickup bees in early summers and, now, twice to return empty nuc boxes in late summer and early fall.
It was raining when I pulled into their driveway; house on the right, a neatly kept garden on the left, trees. The house was dark; no one appeared to be home. I pulled up to Manley’s pole building. It was raining hard. The nuc boxes are fairly light, being made of corrugated plastic, if the wind picked up, they would likely get scattered about. Next to the pole building, perpendicular and to the right, was a shed with a car parked in front it. The car and shed might work as a windbreak. I left the nucs tucked behind and to the left of the car, and near the shed’s door.
The rain stopped just north of Linda and Manley’s; dark clouds and lightning could be seen further to the northeast.
After lunch, I set to work on checking the hives. We are down to just two hives in Racine; we started with four hives several years ago, the count peaked at six, and with winter kill and uncertain future plans for the continuation of hives on the hive, we arrived at two. One of the two hives has been mediocre at producing honey but has been stellar at overwintering, having successfully made it thru four winters.
The first hive to tackle is one that contains bees purchased from Linda and Manley the previous year. Three honey boxes sit atop two brood boxes. The bottom brood box appeared to have been knocked off the hive base — likely by a lawn mower. The half-inch gap between the bottom box and the base makes for a nice exit and entrance for the bees; it also might be wide enough for a field mouse to squeeze in.
As I waited for the smoker’s wood chips to catch fire, I got my protective jacket on. Even though there are only two hives, the late-season smell of golden rod nectar being turned into honey drifted across the wind. It’s a sweet, musky scent. I have heard the smell described as being like a gym locker. Maybe without adequate ventilation, a locker might smell a musty, but the scent of golden rod nectar turning into honey is nothing that I kind of like; it means that fall is on its way.
I pulled the outer cover off, and gave the inner cover’s center opening a few puffs from the smoker. A quick pry with the hive tool, and the inner cover came off. A heavier stream of bees came out of the bottom gap; a few puffs of the smoker seemed to do the trick; calming and confusing them.
The top honey box came loose from the one below with a bit of hive tool prying. The box was loaded with honey – all ten frames. I set it on cross-ways on the upside-down outer cover on the ground.
The second honey box had ten nice frames of honey; it was stuck something-fierce to the box below it. A bit of prying and minimal movement, and the box came loose. I set it on top of the other honey box I had just removed.
The third honey box was similarly cemented to the top brood box with propolis. The top brood box looked great. No burr comb, and without tearing heavily into it, no queen cells. Anecdotally, strong bee numbers. More smoke was puffed across the top brood box before I pried it off and set it onto of the reverse-ordered honey boxes.
With the weight of a 100 or so pounds of honey, and the top brood box off of the bottom box, I was able to square it up on the hive bottom. The bees seemed to be getting a bit hot. Guard bees repeatedly flew into my face screen. More smoke across the top of the brood box on the hive base.
I fiddled around getting the package of Hopguard II open. This particular product works best at the end of the season, after most of the larvae have emerged. Early September is likely a bit early, but I figured I would apply a treatment of it anyway. Four strips of Hopguard II to each brood box. The first strip went well.
As I pulled the second strip out, the box resting on the hive base turned into a bee-volcano. Bees flew up and got tangled in the cuff of my jacket; I began to get stung through the cloth. Many puffs of the smoker, and I remaining calm, and I had four strips of Hopguard II in the one box. I moved a bit quicker with more purpose.
I lifted the brood box that I had moved off, back onto the one that I had straightened on the base. More smoke. I rotated puffs of smoke and inserting Hopguard II strips. More smoke. Lots of smoke to clear out of the layer of bees so I could return the honey boxes atop.
My wrist felt like it was on fire. With the hive of Manley’s Spicy Russian Bees reassembled, I moved onto the other hive. This turned out to be almost a non-event for the bees in this hive. A little smoke, moved the honey boxes and the top brood box away, inserted the Hopguard II strips, and reassembled the hive without incident.
If you are curious about the efficacy of Hopguard II, there was an interesting study done that more or less concluded what I have anecdotally observed. The study is here.
We are not going to be getting much honey this year. I mentioned this already in a previous post.
No honey from the southern hives, actually. None.
This is not a huge infliction monetarily on its own. Honey from these hives never sold as well as the honey from our hives in St. Paul. We still have a pile of the stuff from 2014. People seemed like the more complicated floral taste of the St. Paul honey.
Not getting any honey from these southern hives is a monetary hit, none the less. Particularly, when you factor in that we should have had at least six hives in southern Minnesota. Instead, we ended the season with just two. That’s $80 to $120 per hive. Gone.
The one hive, in the photo with tar paper wrapped around it, is a bit of a rare bunch of bees. Actually, it’s probably just a strong queen. This was the queen’s third season.
There probably short list of whys on the loss of four hives – the crappy Georgian/Wisconsin bees, the hotter-than-accustom-to Russian/Iowan bees, or just mites. The list could go on.
It is actually some what late to close down the hives – the first day of November. The hives are usually all closed down by this time of year. It has been an odd fall, though. Indian summer, no less. We had late summer temperatures much of October.
Hives are closed down, now. Wrapped in tarpaper, with an insulated moisture quilt on top. The remaining hive of Russian bees (in the above photo, it is the hive with the smoker atop), although the bees did not produce any harvestable honey, all the available frames in the deep boxes was filled out with stock for winter. If they overwinter successfully, I’m optimistic that they will produce a harvestable quantity of honey for us.
Over the weekend, I decided to check the hives we have the back of our property. I also planned to put escape boards on; there is honey to be harvested.
It had been a while since I had last opened the hives for inspection. I had last been to the hives a few weeks prior to fix one of the supports under the pallet that two hives reside upon. Moles had borrowed under the chunk of concrete supporting the back, right corner. The tallest of the hives was resting against the chainlink fencing that surrounds the hive area.
It has been a fickle year for bees for us. We mixed things up a bit this spring and got bees from a couple different suppliers. One in Wisconsin with bees via Georgia. The other, from northeastern Iowa where they were raised.
I say fickle because we lost, almost immediately, two packages of bees that we picked up in Wisconsin. We had had plans to hive them in southern Minnesota, and had put the packages of bees into nuc boxes. By the next morning, all the bees in each nuc were dead. We subsequently had two hives swarm.
The Iowan bees faired well enough. There is one quirk with them, though — two of the four hives (two in St. Paul, and two in Racine, MN) failed to move up into the honey boxes. In the above picture, there are bees in the two bottom deep boxes, but there is very little activity in the top box. No honey packing in the top box. The two deeps on that hive are full of bees and honey; it’s like they just did not want to move up one more layer.
The tall hive in the photo – on the right – is loaded with bees and honey. Three deep boxes for brood and three boxes of honey. This appears to be the only hive we will get honey from this season. Not much honey on the other hives. No honey in the boxes on the other hive; the fourth hive swarmed or collapsed. No trace of bees in that hive.
The one thing that I was very annoyed with was finding small hive beetles. I have never had them in our hives before. I suspect the Wisconsin bees carried the beetles. I have no evidence to prove this, but those bees were simply unimpressive.
I think next year, we will go back to our previous supplier of bees — even though they will be priced much higher than the Wisconsin bees, they have been much more reliable in previous years.